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Redemption Songs
by Mark Smith

"Have no fear of atomic energy,
For none of them can stop the time"
Bob Marley, "Redemption Songs"
"Here at home we'll play in the city
Powered by the sun
Perfect weather for a streamlined world
There'll be spandex jackets one for everyone"
Donald Fagen, "I.G.Y." (International Geophysical Year)

How much do you expect from the future? Depending on some combination of your innate psychological disposition, your willingness to embrace the new, and your gullibility, you may either feel threatened or encouraged by current trends in the information age. Dedicated readers of "Wired" magazine consistently con themselves into believing that a new breed of person is just around the corner. Everybody will have equal access to information and equal voices in constructing the reality of their world. In this brave new world, the "hive mentality" of the group will replace the divisive sectarian fragmentation which is so counterproductive to a cohesive society. Log on to any Internet newsgroup, however, and you'll find more of the same bigotry and bad logic which already plagues political discourse in this country. If religion is the opiate of the masses, connectivity is the opiate of the nerds.

Some educators are expecting so much from "technology", as we have affectionately come to call that lumpen collection of voice, data and communication tools currently being implemented in our schools, that they have actually started to believe the hype of software promoters who tell them how each new package will somehow revolutionize learning and magically provide new meaning to old subjects. Yeah, right. I think that's what the Encyclopedia Britannica salesman tried to tell my dad, thirty years ago, just before he got his foot slammed in the door. The salesman's modus operandi involved the spreading of thick slabs of guilt trip over the parental slice of hope for the child's success: buy the encyclopedia or your son/daughter will be the only functionally illiterate kid on the block. This elegant source of information was sold as a tool absolutely essential to the intellectual success of the aspiring student. How many parents bought in to this expensive notion, then failed to foster any dialogue with their kids or provide any example of love of learning themselves?

Times change. Nowadays parents try to provide computers for their kids. This is still an expensive proposition, and there is still no guarantee that the computer will, in and of itself, ensure academic success. It seems however that the current predilection for jazzy software is even more driven by self deception on the part of the educators: if I have this software my curriculum will be complete and life will be easier. Hah! We need to make a distinction between entertainment, information and knowledge. The encyclopedia provided tons of information. Technology is good at providing entertainment along with (and often in place of) information, but the construction of knowledge comes from communication between living, breathing people.

No, no - I' m not a Luddite, so don't jump to conclusions. I love this "technology" stuff probably more than anybody else. But I'm a lot more interested in the day to day contact with kids, and the magic that arises from genuine face-to-face communication. The way to evaluate anything technology-related is to ask yourself whether it brings the teacher closer to the student and the students closer to each other. If it doesn't, or if your first and deepest reaction to the software is, "Well I'll be darned! Isn't that neat," then you don't need it. It's just shallow entertainment. And if you think any one of these things is there primarily to make your life easier, that's also the wrong reason to use it - wrong also in an absolute sense, because computers don't necessarily make your life any easier, they only make it potentially more interesting. Remember, there's a difference between easy and interesting. Even the "interesting" part isn't guaranteed; as with any other tool, it depends on how you use the computer.

One of the neatest and least remembered beauties of a computer is still the ease with which we can capture words from our heads and put them on the screen. It's the ability to let your fingers do the thinking for you - the freedom to write unrelated words or phrases anywhere on the page, any time, and to pick them up and move them around later, without having to erase and rewrite. The threshold of frustration is lowered, and communication is enhanced. I say this is a super good thing, because it is a way to help help construct meaning out of chaos. That's one reason Javasite: Online Coffeehouse 108 S. Union, Traverse Citywhy I'm a big fan of computers. Although this ability to compose in a completely different manner has been duly noted elsewhere, because it lacks the bells and whistles of some of the more high powered and visually glitzy stuff, we tend to forget what a great tool we have at our disposal.

As educators, however, we are constantly reminded not to treat the computer as a mere typewriter. It's very important to remember that there are vastly more powerful uses for the machine. But really, I must stress again that it's all how you use a tool that determines its effectiveness. The old, jaded "country report" (you know - "The primary export of Mauritius is bauxite.." etc.) can be just as stale and meaningless when done through, say, PowerPoint as it ever was before the invention of presentation software. In fact, it can be worse! We may actually end up trading in some of the writing, thinking and organization skills required for the old written report for the visual and entertainment appeal of the presentation software. It all depends how you use it. If you ask for more than canned information from students you will get it, but you won't necessarily get it just by virtue of using showy software.

If we want to escape the old recall methodology of teaching (and we do, don't we? .....DON'T WE!?) then we must be just as vigilant of how we use the new technology as we were about not letting kids turn in vast quantities of slightly modified information on Mauritius and calling it original thinking. Information is merely the raw material of knowledge and understanding. Original thinking (or the construction of knowledge) requires that the student make new connections and discover new insights, and "technology", purely by virtue of its newness, does not necessarily guarantee that new and original insights will be made. Once again, it's a matter of personal intervention. We cannot allow the technology to babysit for us and then fool ourselves into believing that something useful is going on. The teacher is still the most important "tool" in the classroom, and it will be a heck of a long time before that ever changes.

Would you let television take over the parenting of your kids? Well, O.K., maybe it's actually going on, as a matter of fact, in millions of homes across the nation. Which is why many progressive thinking parents simply ban the T.V. from their homes. Not a bad idea, but perhaps somewhat drastic. It seems that people who don't have a television in their home are forever prattling on about how wonderful and virtuous a life they lead. Like a recovering alcoholic, or a smoker who has managed to quit, they have turned their backs on the substance, in this case television, and are leading more productive lives for it. Great, but please, leave me out of it! I can "parent" my kids just fine AND watch television from time to time. Likewise, I can live with and use the "technology" without becoming so lazy that I let it do my job for me, because I think I still realize that a teacher's job, like that of a parent, is actually so important that it should not be handed over to a machine, or even an encyclopedia. We are still the single most influential factor in our kids' lives, and we would do well to remember how insignificant computers are in comparison to the power of direct, one-on-one, compassionate, dedicated involvement in the lives of those we care for.

As educators and parents our healthy fear of the Internet arises directly out of our sense that, like television, it is both powerful and impersonal. The Internet is the most talked about and least understood of the technology features in our schools. It is just like the real world, only more so. There's more than you can ever use - entertainment and information, not knowledge - and it's more extremely specialized, and available than you would ever want. So you have to select. And you have to guide. And you have to be there, in the room, when it is in use, just like before, only more so. Pornography is not the big problem with the Internet. That's just a side issue, drummed up out of all proportion to its significance to sell copies of TIME magazine. The more important issue regarding students' use of the web is training them to evaluate the myriad sources of conflicting information which will become available to them at the push of a button. Now here's an issue I can sink my teeth into, because my involvement is required.

Training students to question and critically regard every word that appears in print, be it mainstream media or crackpot newsgroup postings, requires intelligent teacher intervention. Here's a real job for a real person, one that I will never relinquish to a machine, because the machine - in this case the World Wide Web - is only as good as the person operating it. My job as an educator is training students to "access" information and, more importantly, evaluate information. So when one of my students is doing a report on, say, the national health care debate, and finds tons of "good" information posted by the American Medical Association's homepage, telling why "socialized" medicine is bad, I can at least attempt to show why the A.M.A. would be expected to post such info, and can suggest getting a second opinion on the subject, in good medical tradition. Far from discounting evidence, I am asking students to check their sources, question motives, and think for themselves. These are lofty objectives, and the use of the Internet to access all kinds of information only enhances my ability to teach the important lessons of the need for an educated populace in a healthy democracy.

Nowadays we are bombarded with non-stop "news", so that it becomes increasingly difficult to know what is important, or even true. "The flow of messages from the instant everywhere fills every niche of our consciousness, crowding out knowledge and understanding. For while knowledge is steady and cumulative, information is random and miscelllaneous" (Daniel Boorstin). I welcome the advent of the age of information, despite its drawbacks, not because of some inherent qualitative difference in the texture of human experience which is promised by our access to information, but because it at least offers a chance that the quality of our thought and communication might be enhanced through unrestricted access to information. What we do with that information is the challenge, and how we teach our children the difference between entertainment, information and knowledge is still our responsibility.

Also by Mark Smith
Whip It Good!
Taking on the lions of March
Learning the Language
back to school...
Frozen cattle, 12 feet of snow and winter survival skills.
Mark Smith is a teacher at Leland Public School. Among other things, he edits and webmasters a journal of student and teacher writing, The Beechnut Review.

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